The most important civil rights battleground today is education, and, likewise, the most crucial struggle against poverty is the one fought in schools.
Inner-city urban schools today echo the “separate but equal” system of the early 1950s. In the Chicago Public Schools where teachers are now on strike, 86 percent of children are black or Hispanic, and 87 percent come from low-income families.
Those students often don't get a solid education, any more than blacks received in their separate schools before Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago's high school graduation rates have been improving but are still about 60 percent. Just 3 percent of black boys in the ninth grade end up earning a degree from a four-year college, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.
America's education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next.
That's why school reform is so critical. This is an issue of equality, opportunity and national conscience. It's not just about education, but about poverty and justice — and while the Chicago teachers' union claims to be striking on behalf of students, I don't see it.
In fairness, it's true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn't teachers' unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers' unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states. The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.
Still, some Chicago teachers seem to think that they shouldn't be held accountable until poverty is solved. There are steps we can take that would make some difference, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying some of them — yet the union is resisting.
It's unconscionable that, until recently, many Chicago elementary students had a school day almost an hour shorter than the national average and a school year two weeks shorter than the national average. Bravo to the mayor for trying to close the gaps.
I'd be sympathetic if the union focused solely on higher compensation. Teachers need to be much better paid to attract the best college graduates to the nation's worst schools. But, instead, the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers.
There's now solid evidence that there are huge differences in the effectiveness of teachers, even within high-poverty schools. The gold standard study, by Harvard and Columbia University scholars and released in December by the National Bureau of Economic Research, took data from a major urban school district and found that even in the context of poverty, teachers consistently had a huge positive or negative impact.
Get a bottom 1 percent teacher, and the effect is the same as if a child misses 40 percent of the school year. Get a teacher from the top 20 percent, and it's as if a child has gone to school for an extra month or two.
The study found that strong teachers in the fourth through eighth grades raise the game of their students in ways that would last for decades. Just having a strong teacher for one elementary year left pupils a bit less likely to become mothers as teenagers, a bit more likely to go to college, and earning more money at age 28.
Removing the bottom 5 percent of teachers would have a huge impact. Students in a single classroom with an average teacher, rather than one from the bottom 5 percent, collectively will earn an additional $1.4 million over their careers, the study found.
Another study, one from Los Angeles that has been contested, suggested that four years in a row of having a teacher from the top quarter of teachers, instead of from the bottom quarter, might be enough to erase the black-white testing gap.
How does one figure out who is a weak teacher? Yes, that's a challenge. But researchers are improving systems to measure “value added” from beginning to end of the year, and with three years of data it's usually possible to tell which teachers are failing.
Unfortunately, the union in Chicago is insisting that teachers who are laid off — often for being ineffective — should get priority in new hiring. That's an insult to students.
Teaching is so important that it should be like other professions, with high pay and good working conditions but few job protections for bottom performers.
This isn't a battle between garment workers and greedy corporate barons. The central figures in the Chicago schools strike are neither strikers nor managers but 350,000 children. Protecting elements of a broken and unaccountable school system — the union demand — sacrifices those students, in effect turning a blind eye to a “separate but equal” education system.
Contact Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, at Facebook.com/Kristof.